Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Open Heart Surgery

Instructions to designer from the author

A friend said to me recently: had I ever done a panel in a Festival on how a book is edited?
I was surprised by the question, and more so, by my answer. I had never done anything like this. Nor had I ever seen a panel on this subject. But the question intrigued me.

Usually a book is promoted after it is finished. To take a step back, into the messy, frequently indecisive moments – before the book jells into its final shape – is a risk.
But the fact is a book has many forks in the road.  

For example it is the exception for a book to be written in one concentrated period of time.  Most books are composites of different periods of writing. In some ways it is not too dissimilar from an artist working in oils, slowly building up a picture – changing details as he or she goes along, painting over things that don’t work out. It’s an addition, a composite, a process that is gone through over time.
One thing it isn’t is neat.

Removing subtitle from the inside page. The publisher wanted a subtitle. I didn't. 

The lovely simplicity of a finished book is a mask over the many decisions taken, as well as the false roads and dead-ends left behind. The writer’s style is the glue that holds it all together. 

The writer’s style is the thing that makes it all seem ‘of a piece’.

But behind any book is a kind of invisible architecture, or equation which the reader cunningly assembles in his or her own head. This equation has to add up. Yet it is made of many different things – it can’t be simply spelled out in a sentence – otherwise why bother writing a many-sentenced book?

But a good editor has a key role. It is identifying and then clarifying this hidden equation, buried under a mountain of words, a highway of clauses, a continent of full stops, commas and dashes.

At times this is relatively easy and clear.

At other times, there is a lot of work involved.

 And it doesn’t help that towards the end of a writing process a writer becomes exhausted, petulant, sick of what they have often spent years writing. Yet this same writer is desperate that the effort be validated by acceptance of the big messy manuscript he or she nervously parts with, sending it off to the editor.

This is usually followed by euphoria – in your mind the perfect equation returns and you believe you have delivered it.

The editor’s awful job is to tactfully inform the writer that though the work is ‘full of promise’ and ‘really interesting’ it is not ‘quite there yet.’
(Read: a mess that will require a lot of work to tidy up.)

With this current book, I had an editor who did a sort of big picture edit. Then I had a different editor to do an almost line by line edit.

This latter experience I found very difficult at first. She seemed to misunderstand the type of history I was writing (which was similar to my book on Colenso, openly personal and quite often wandering off onto tangents.)

Her role was to keep me on the ‘straight and narrow’. Over time I came to respect her opinions but it took me a long time to say goodbye to large parts of the book I personally found interesting.

Too much detail, even when it is a fascinating quote from Mark Twain in Napier
But the fact was the book was massively too long.

What does this mean?

It really means the book was too long for its commercial possibilities.
A two volume work isn’t a contemporary reality. Even a long book, in today’s market, is a risk (although conversely long books like Eleonor Catton and Donna Tartt’s novels have recently had a vogue.)

Regardless my 200,000 plus word manuscript was boiled down by a ruthless process of removal to a much more commercial 170,000 words. (30,000 words is half of a slim novel.)

I can no longer even remember what has vanished in the process.

Goodbye to all that.

So what would a conversation be like between an editor and a writer?

I think it would work if you narrowed it down to a chapter and talked specifics. You could quite easily show how a chapter was altered, tightened in focus, reduced to its main points.

You could show what was chucked out.

You could even show the pictures chosen to illustrate and how even these go through an editing process, then have a captions added, (or removed) or simplified.

It’s all part of a long very exhausting editing process.

In reality it has been going on for more than four months.

And the thing is you have to keep that magic unseen equation (that nobody else can see yet) in your head.
It is one very very long spell of concentration.

Sometimes I tell myself this is why I just need to lie down on the bed in the middle of the afternoon and collapse into sleep.

But would all this be revealing the machinery behind the curtain? Would this reduce the ‘prestige’ of being an author who supposedly produces his or her books single-handed?

Most authors understand the collaborative process of writing – but do readers? 

Or would readers even care?

I think if it was done well and completely it would be riveting.

But I wonder, which author is going to volunteer for open-heart surgery? 


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